On Tuesday, January 18, 2011, Mark Messier turns 50 years old.
I can think of a lot of tough athletes I’ve ever seen strap ’em up. Pete Rose. Mike Singletary. Jack Lambert. Bob Probert. And probably 50 other guys I’m forgetting right now. But, without a doubt, Mark Messier is the out-and-out meanest hombre I have ever watched play professional sports.
Watching Mark Messier play in his first professional season, with the World Hockey Association’s Cincinnati Stingers, I don’t remember him being anything remarkable. Just a young guy, who could skate reasonably well, who ran into a few people. Not much discipline in his game. Just a lot of skating and hitting.
But when he came to the Edmonton Oilers, as they entered the NHL in 1979, Messier’s game changed. Glen Sather’s greatest asset as a coach was his ability/mantra to let young guys do what they did best. And not try and mould them into something they were never going to be. That may seem simple on paper or in conversation, but it’s a lot trickier to do in life.
Early in his first season, Messier missed an Oilers’ flight to St. Louis. Slats sent him to the CHL’s Houston Apollos to smarten up. It worked. Messier never played another minor-league game in his life. And his hockey game exploded. Oh, he only had 33 points (12 goals) in his first NHL season, but he was poised to bust out.
But, when the Oilers began their second season, Sather decided Bryan Watson would take over the bench. That brutal experiment lasted 18 games before Slats piped Bugsy and took over himself. In those 18 Watson fiascos, Messier only had six points. After Sather took over, and told Messier to go do what he does best, Mark had 57 points in the season’s remaining 62 games. The next season, Messier scored 50 times and became the player everyone remembers.
But Messier had a component to his game that was truly scary. He would, without warning, snap and treat an opponent like something inhuman. I saw this firsthand when I was producing Oilers’ games on television in the mid-1980s.
On December 5, 1987, the Toronto Maple Leafs were at Northlands Coliseum to play the Stanley Cup-champion Oilers. Early in the second period, the puck was heading deep into the Leafs’ zone, with Messier and Leafs’ defenceman Dale DeGray the only two, side-by-side, in hot pursuit. Without warning, Messier lifted the butt-end of his stick and absolutely blasted it into DeGray’s face. Dale DeGray went down like a sack of cement. Messier was assessed a major penalty which, of course, the Oilers killed.
When we watched the replay in the TV truck (before airing it), it was a miracle DeGray wasn’t dead. I have never seen anything so brutal and executed without warning. I instructed our director not to use the tight replay. We took a wider, end-zone look instead. The Oilers won the game. Messier scored the winner, his 19th of the season, in the third period.
That one moment told me all I needed to know about Mark Messier. It’s what made him one of the greatest players to ever skate in the NHL. The unpredictability. The ruthlessness. The incredible skill.
Love him or not, the toughest NHL player ever turns 50 tomorrow.